Special Report ­ NATPE: Medialab brings real life to animation: Performance animation looks poised to make its way into the U.S. market

There are bound to be raised eyebrows and a lot of excited whispering among the producers, broadcasters and syndicators who attend the general session on the morning of Tuesday, January 14 at this year's NATPE.
They surely will be dazzled by...
January 1, 1997

There are bound to be raised eyebrows and a lot of excited whispering among the producers, broadcasters and syndicators who attend the general session on the morning of Tuesday, January 14 at this year’s NATPE.

They surely will be dazzled by the 3-D show that NATPE has organized. It incorporates real-time animation performance, courtesy of Medialab, a world leader in this new animation technique.

But the oo’s and ah’s will seem like old hat to Emmanuel Javal, the Paris-based senior vice president of performance animation and television for Medialab.

‘The first reaction is usually one of fascination and excitement,’ says Javal in describing how most people respond when they see what Medialab can do.

‘The second reaction is often fear. The fear comes from wondering, how d’es it work, and how cost-effective is it? It may also seem a little frightening to contemplate working with a French company that is several thousand kilometers away.’

Those fears, and a tendency to shy away from risky new ventures in the high-stakes U.S. broadcast market, help account for why performance animation, also referred to as real-time animation, or virtual hosting which is derived from the same basic technology has not yet made it in the North American market, even though European broadcasters have been incorporating this into their schedules with great success over the past five years.

Javal, who introduced the technique to North Americans at NATPE two years ago and has followed up at the SIGGRAPH market, among others, says he feels this is his year to break through.

Medialab has a two-pronged plan for the U.S. The company hopes to market its technology as a production tool, and become a full-fledged content developer as well. Medialab has been working on the latter initiative through a Los Angeles office that has been up and running out of its Canal+ parent company’s operations in Beverly Hills since last spring. It is being headed by senior vice president, creative affairs and executive producer Carole Kirschner, a veteran producer who has worked on prime-time comedy and drama as well as kids animation. She has been sending out feelers to producers, writers, creators and broadcasters for almost a year now.

American TV audiences may get their first look at performance animation as early as this fall when Donkey Kong Country is completed. The 26-episode series, based on the highly successful Nintendo video game, is being co-produced with Canadian-based animation studio Nelvana.

Once U.S. producers and broadcasters see firsthand on their own television sets what Medialab’s technology can do, and now that Medialab has a corporate presence in the heart of the U.S. production community, Javal expects performance animation will get the attention he feels it deserves.

Essentially, the technique works this way. Actors are dressed in ‘data suits’ equipped with some 26 sensors, which are positioned on their fingers, hands, elbows, shoulders, knees and feet. When the actors perform, these sensors send a data file back to computers, which read the performance data and then link them instantaneously to a computer-generated, three-dimensional character.

Facial expressions are handled by a puppeteer who, using a data sensor glove, provides all the facial movement.

Thus, the visual we see is a composite of the actor’s body performance, the puppeteer’s facial performance, and the cartoon character’s three-dimensional image. It is a cartoon character engaging in human action. And it all happens in real time.

Medialab technology has been used by European broadcasters both as a straight animation production tool and as a means of creating live performances on TV shows.

On French pay-TV channel Canal+, performance animation was used to create Cleo, a cheeky character who has established herself as a star personality in her own right. She has appeared on various shows since she was created about six years ago.

Most recently, Cleo has become the host of a 10-minute French newscast of sorts called Cyber Flash that highlights the latest developments in high technology. Javal says the show is scripted on Friday, the voice is recorded on Monday, the animation is done on Tuesday and some post-production is done on Wednesday. The show appears the next day, recapping events of the preceding week.

‘One of the advantages we have is production flexibility,’ says Javal.

One of the first broadcasters to work with Medialab was Nickelodeon in the United Kingdom. Together, they created a character called Bert The Fish, who co-hosts a show called Rise and Slime. Bert appears on the show ‘live’ and interacts with the other hosts. In appearance, it is similar to the way cartoon characters interact with humans in such feature films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or the more recent Space Jam only it is live television. Bert also responds to a live audience and to kids who call in to the show.

‘Nickelodeon stopped the show for about two weeks once,’ recalls Javal. ‘Kids really thought the character was real, and they wondered what had happened to him. They called in to the station and asked where did Bert go?

‘So Nickelodeon decided to tell the kids that Bert had gone on holidays, and they showed him on a beach in Australia. The point is, many kids believe that Bert is a character that really exists. Kids find him engrossing.’

In all, Medialab has developed about 20 characters. Its system is being used by broadcasters across Europe and at least three Nickelodeon in the U.K., France 2 and RAI in Italy have contracts with Medialab to use the technology on their own, using Medialab’s software as a turnkey animation production system.

‘Kids seem attracted to the animation because it is something they’ve never seen before,’ says Javal. ‘It’s new and fascinating.

‘But it also [takes] characters that they know from other worlds like Donkey Kong from the video game world and brings them into kids’ worlds . . . not just in one shot, as in a feature film, but on a daily basis.’

The task of establishing Medialab in the U.S. as a content developer falls onto the shoulders of Carole Kirschner.

She says she has a project that she hopes to be able to announce early this year. She describes it as a half-hour comedy adventure for kids that combines performance animation with other animated characters. The writer/creator on the project is known for a particular style of humor.

Kirschner says she is looking to forge all sorts of creative alliances as a co-production partner, as a developer of proprietary projects and as a provider of performance animation to be incorporated into existing projects.

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